The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘So skeptical’: Sen. Joni Ernst echoes conspiracy theory questioning coronavirus death count

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) speaks from Des Moines during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 26. (Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention/AP)

When a man in the crowd of her Iowa campaign stop told Sen. Joni Ernst (R) on Monday that he believed the number of U.S. coronavirus deaths had been overcounted, Ernst replied that she too was “so skeptical.”

“These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if covid is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” she said to the crowd outside Waterloo, Iowa, according to a report by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Ernst’s comments echo conspiracy theories pushed by QAnon followers that have been debunked by doctors and public health experts. According to fact-checking site PolitiFact, public health experts believe the number of coronavirus deaths is probably undercounted, because many of the hardest-hit cities lacked the resources to effectively document every death early in the pandemic.

Critics lashed out at Ernst over the claim, including Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who is seeking to unseat her in a November election expected to be tight.

“It’s appalling for you to say you’re ‘so skeptical’ of the toll this pandemic has on our families and communities across Iowa,” Greenfield said in a tweet directed at Ernst. “We need leaders who will take this seriously.”

Ernst did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Tuesday. In an interview with the Courier, she expanded on why she doubted the number of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, which has claimed at least 181,000 lives in the United States and killed 1,121 people in Iowa as of early Wednesday.

QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory, is fueled by right-wing outrage online and in the real world. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

At least 181,000 people have died from coronavirus in the U.S.

“They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a covid-related illness or death,” she said, referring to doctors and medical workers.

“I heard the same thing on the news,” she continued. “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly covid-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

It is true that Medicare adds a 20 percent increase in payments for covid-19 patients, but those dollars are meant to address the added cost of treating a challenging new virus. Doctors have widely disputed the suggestion that the increase has prompted hospitals to inflate coronavirus case or death numbers.

On Wednesday, Ernst walked back her comments in a statement shared with The Post, acknowledging the large U.S. death toll.

“Over 180,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19," Ernst said. "What matters is that we are getting the resources to Iowa that are needed to fight this virus, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Ernst flipped a longtime Democratic-controlled Senate seat in 2014 as a rising star in the Republican Party and reportedly declined an offer to run as Trump’s vice president pick in 2016. The race between her and Greenfield could cost the candidates as much as $100 million combined by November.

The inaccurate figure of 10,000 or fewer covid-19 deaths is similar to a widely spread QAnon meme that misinterpreted a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That study said the coronavirus was the only contributing factor in 6 percent of reported deaths. The conspiracy theory that claims the U.S. death toll is inflated incorrectly assumes that only 6 percent of deaths should be counted in the covid-19 death tally. The study does not support that claim.

In the other 94 percent of coronavirus deaths, the victims had at least one other contributing factor. Those deaths still count toward the overall number of deaths caused by the virus. Health experts have known since the early days of the pandemic that preexisting conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, increase a patient’s likelihood to die of a coronavirus infection.

The suggestion that the U.S. death toll has been inflated has been echoed by QAnon accounts and even retweeted by President Trump. When Trump on Sunday retweeted a QAnon follower named “Mel Q” who made the claim on Twitter, the social media site removed the tweet for spreading false information about the pandemic.

Twitter deletes claim minimizing coronavirus death toll, which Trump retweeted

In the past week, new coronavirus cases have spiked by nearly 84 percent in Ernst’s state and the death toll increased by 25 percent. Nightclubs, concert venues and sporting arenas are still closed in Iowa, but most other businesses have been allowed to reopen and children are required to attend in-person classes at public schools throughout the state.

The senator’s unfounded claims inspired backlash from some observers, who viewed the remarks as undermining health-care workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Senator Ernst is from Iowa, where currently is having one of the WORST #COVID19 OUTBREAKS hotspot in the entire nation as a region, and some say maybe the world,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist, health economist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, tweeted Tuesday in response to Ernst’s comments. “To deny that is to deny the suffering of Iowans.”